The Mark of the Owl and the Phoenix. Chapters 5-8

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Chapter 5

Swan jumped out and nearly fell into the river.

She landed on all fours, and then regretted it because of the bullet wound, irritated because of the scratchy grass below her. She brought her leg closer to her and noticed heat coming from the bullet wound, and a lot of blood surrounding the wound and pouring out.

The other hunter, who complained about his shoes, Rafael, murmured,” Hmmph. At least my shoes aren’t ruined.” He just focused on putting back on his shoes. Apparently, they must have flung out of her feet when they landed. Rafael looked around and asked,” Where are we anyway?”

Swan looked around briefly, but she still got details. They were no longer in that winter glade.

They were in a summer forest, with the trees glittering green with fresh leaves and the dotty sunlight. A clean dirt road was covered by a thin line of trees at the other side of the river in front of them, which was as skinny as a stream. Looking at the right, they were at the edge of a forest, with sounds of faint music and talking wafting from afar.

But right now, where they are, isn’t the problem for Swan. She’s worried about the wound in her leg.

Immediately, she crawled to the river, and washed the bullet wound, along with the scrape that still was on her leg that came from some stupid branch. But, she focused more on her bullet wound.

” Calm down,” Goswin said as he calmly came upon her wound. Immediately, and silently, he went to his bag. For what, Swan did not know. Please let it be something to get this bullet out. she thought. She had already tried on her own, and hoped that Goswin could do something about it.

Swan looked at her hands, and noticed they were shaking. She felt tears falling to her cheeks. Her body, and herself can’t swallow what just happened a few minutes ago.

I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot. was her line of thoughts that repeated a lot of times. She was under such a wave of trauma, and wondered bitterly if she would ever feel joy again. Swan wondered if she was going to end up like Mad Anna, a young lady whose lover left her, and the despair the overcame her, drove her insane, laughing by herself and burning some trees, because her lover often liked to climb them. But Swan didn’t think that kind of thing would happen to her. She didn’t have anyone purposely leaving her, or anything of that kind that happened to Mad Anna. but she was so heavy-hearted that she didn’t have anything else to think about other than her sorrow.

Even in her despair, she felt Goswin’s hand land on her shoulder.” Swan,” Goswin’s voice echoed through the haze of despair. ” Are you okay? I know it hurts. But you’re safe now. No one’s going to hurt you.”

She thought about what happened at the forest, between Goswin and that mad commander. As strange as it looks, these two knew each other. Swan kept a mental note to talk to him about that.

Right now, she has to keep herself sane, and “get a grip”, as her mother would sometimes say. That made her want to cry all over again. Somehow, the tears won’t shed. Has she cried out her everything?

Finally she said,” I’m fine. I just…I can’t take it in.”

Goswin nodded, like he understood. He was bent down on the river, washing his hands, and wiping his hands dry on his trousers. Swan didn’t criticize him. She had done that also. Then, he asked,” Can I get you anything? Are you feeling too cold or too hot for some reason?”

Swan realized that, yeah, she was feeling cold. Why has the day become so freezing? She looked around, thinking maybe they were going back to those wintry woods, but they were still in the sickly shining summer wood. No excuse for feeling cold. She shivered, teeth chattering. Then she realized that her cloak was gone. Where did it go?

Goswin must have noticed, because he murmured, ” Sonalus, what am I doing?” He immediately took off his cloak-no need to wear it- and draped it over her, revealing his white shirt and a black leather jerkin.

Swan felt much warmer afterwards, and she gratefully thanked him for the cloak. Then, she saw Goswin take a look at her leg, curse quietly, and begin pressing the wound with his fingers.

Baffled, she asked,” What are you doing?”

” Applying direct pressure onto the wound.” he replied, as he got some pieces of cloth to cover the wound and keep pressing.” If you lose any more blood, you’ll faint, and if help doesn’t come soon, and I don’t do anything, you will die from blood loss.” Next, before Swan could reply, Goswin yelled,” Rafael! Can you send a message for help?”

Swan heard Rafael swear under his breath, and as she turned around, saw him turn into a white owl, yet decked a little heavily with black dots. The transformation frightened her. It was just so sudden. Rafael just stood up, and spread his arms forward like he was putting on his cloak, and suddenly, without anything to prepare her, an owl a few inches tall stood in his place. With a soft screech, Rafael as the white owl, flapped his wings and left soaring through the woods.

Swan, was left with her mouth jaw dropped, watching. And thinking. This reminded her of something her father sometimes told her about. People. Into owls. Winter.

She juggled the words in her head, until it struck her. She remembered.

Turning to Goswin, who gave her a curious look, she asked him,” You. And Rafael. You guys are Sowlens, right?”

” Yeah,” he answered, as if it was super obvious. But Swan couldn’t believe it. She turned away, too stunned to look at him.

” I thought they were a myth.” she muttered, and realized she said them out loud. Loud enough for Goswin to hear. She turned to Goswin who was surprised, like he was thinking, What did you say?

” But,” he said, looking at her earnestly,” now you know Sowlens are real. Right?”

Run to the forest, and the white bird will find you. her mother had said.

Maybe. Maybe Goswin was the white bird that she was talking about. Swan doesn’t know yet about Rafael, but she was sure that she had found, the white bird.

Nodding her head slowly, she said,” Yes, I do now.”

Chapter 6

In a high tower, close to the fort, High Ebony, a lady in a floor-length green damask gown sat on a chair, staring absentmindedly out the window, wringing her hands and worrying.

Swan, where are you? she cried in her head. For some reason, she vanished from the once Pholuxonian woods. She knew Ella would send her there. She had been warned. But her scouts searched hard for hours and said that they lost her scent.

There were times she just wanted to scream at those scouts and give all of them a good beating. Swan was a good hider, but these scouts have been trained for this. Why couldn’t they find a sixteen-year-old girl?

When she knew they were getting close, she began to feel elated. Following Swan’s footprints that only she and her family knew, she can almost hear her. But suddenly, the tracks stopped. With no explanation. Her prints just stopped. With no proof that she probably got caught by some large beast in the woods. It just aggravated her like crazy. Because she had made a promise to Ella.

If Robert and I are not here to help Swan, you will train her as your own. Ella Thyme had said this to her ten years ago. Oh, it was only ten years ago, when things were much simpler. She had said this calmly, and alone to her, when they chatted in private. Swan was someone important-needed for the plot to overthrow the king, but they have no idea where she came from. Ella didn’t scream at the lady, but sometimes, especially now, the lady often remembered the promise as a scream. Where was Ella’s chamomile tea when she needed it? Anything to sink into a deep sleep and forget there was such a thing called worry…

” My lady,” a voice behind her called out, and the lady turned around and saw Vince Grey, a Sowlen of 25 years was standing at the doorway with his usual uniform of a faded light blue shirt, brown breeches, and worn hunting boots. His usual baffled expression is broken to a nearly happy one (not that he doesn’t get happy much) as he announced,” A Sowlen volunteer came by High Ebony.”

“Which one?” the lady asked, knowing there were only two. ” The doctor’s son or the fool?”

“The fool, unfortunately.” he replied.

The lady sighed as she stood up, taller and with more elegance than she would have shown in her grapevines back in Heather’s Fields. Be boastful, but not highborn proud. White Flames has instructed. How relaxing to be highborn straight again, instead of a halfway bend towards swaying like a tree in a storm.”Well,” she said as they walked out of the room, and down a numerous flights of stairs in the tower.”let’s get on with it, and see what the fool wants.”

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Turning back to her injury, Swan noticed that even as the pieces of cloth get soaked, Goswin still applied more. She asked,” Why don’t you just replace the napkins or something? They’re already covered in blood.”

Goswin, still pressing on the wound, said,” If I let go, more blood will pour out, and these handkerchiefs are what keeping them inside.” He then turned to his satchel, and added,” Once the blood flow stops, or is under control, I can wrap cloth around the wound in order to ensure that the wound will heal.”

” What about the bullet?” Swan asked. For some reason, Goswin let it stay where it was. What’s up with that?

” The bullet?” something in his voice tells Swan that his patience is going to strain.” I can’t pull it out. I’m not a doctor. The reason I asked Rafael to call for help is so you can get to safety.”

” Then how did you learn to do this? And why are you helping me?” Swan pressed. If he’s not a doctor-of course he’s not the doctor, he seems to be about her age-why was he doing this? Why am I asking this now? she thought. She should have asked before he began doing this “direct pressure” thing.

Goswin sighed and replied,” I-” then he stopped and ended up with,” I was taught by someone I knew. I’m helping you because…never mind. You don’t want to know.” His tone was tinged with sadness, and impatience. Like he was saying, That’s all you need to know. So please, stop asking me.

But Swan didn’t want it to be the end. Goswin Lestrin. When he introduced himself, she felt that the name sounded familiar. Now she remembered. She heard this man was a murderer, and strangely enough, when she took Rafael’s boots, he didn’t kill her-maybe it was too small an offense. When the HEKN showed up, he sheathed his dagger-probably because it wasn’t the right time.

And she considered him to be her white bird.

Of course she should think that if she asked some more, it could be the end of her, but if anything, along with being a thief once, and a wheat farmer, she was known to be nosy. Neville’s mother often told her that nosiness is one of the most stupidest ways to die. Besides, she often said, raising her hand, curling her fingers like she’s holding an object, what will you get after knowing more stuff? A peacock? I think not.

Her mother then-

Tears came to her eyes, and it wasn’t from the pain from the wound, though the pain sang pretty loudly. It…what happened…was too much for her bear. Oh my, help.

” Is there something wrong?” Goswin asked, his strain lessened.

Quickly wiping tears,” Just the wound,” she said, ” and…thinking about my mother.” She then saw that the bleeding of the wound had subsided. Part of her wanted to remove the layers of cloth, just to see if the wound gave up on bleeding.

But before she can touch them, Rafael’s bird form came back, and in midair, transformed into the human the same way he turned into an owl-wing positioning, sudden transformation-and landed crouching on the ground.

Immediately standing up, he went to Goswin and reported,” I found the nearest fort. It’s called High Ebony, and it’s two miles from here. Turns out a Sowlen is also here, and gets our message. Two men are already coming on horseback to meet us.”

” Wait, a fort?” Swan asked. She had listened to every word Rafael said. Goswin said to “get help”. A fort?

Goswin, already looking inside his bag, got out a white roll of cloth. He unrolled it to a certain length. ” A fort nearby is a good sign. Therefore the trek shouldn’t be too hard. But we don’t choose just any fort. Just ones that support the White Flames.”

” They are still here? You’re part of them?” Swan asked. She only heard about them a few times. They are a secret resistance that had been attacking King Norbert’s places of his power for a few years, ever since Swan was one. But eight years ago, when Swan was eight, King Norbert announced that they were destroyed. They died in an explosion that the King’s Men used against them in the Heather Field’s Bank. The only place that hasn’t been imploded by them.

” On the first question, yes, they do.” Goswin replied as he tied the white cloth around the covered wound, tying a knot to fasten it.” But they are new recruits and are getting creative. And on the second question, no. We’re only volunteers. We believe in their cause, but they are testing us if we are worthy to be recruited. Part of their failure is bringing the wrong people. People loyal to King Norbert, and either traitors and spies to hear their plans.”

” So what plans do they have now?” Swan asked. She wanted to know for real. All she heard of their plans is through the posters of propaganda from King Norbert, screaming how they were murderers, thieves, and terrorists. She had often asked her mother and father if this was true. It depends on you. They always replied. Frustrated, Swan put herself out of it. Now, she wants to know.

Rafael snorted, and asked back,” You think the White Flames would tell a bunch of volunteers that they are just beginning to trust?”

” And you trust them?” Swan asked. Now they-the White Flames-seemed like the creeps King Norbert had yelled about through his posters, and planes carrying his news in the streets when she was little. Now not only are they destroying buildings, they are shifty and untrustworthy to a couple of people who just wanted to help.

” It’s not time for us to think about this now-” Goswin began.

“-Why not?” Swan asked, jolting up her feet. For once, her pain didn’t seem to bother her as much. In fact her leg is beginning to feel warm, but Swan didn’t pay much attention to it. ” What are you? Five-year-olds? Gosh, you’re around my age, it looks like.”

Rafael immediately clenched fists, and Swan backed up a step. The last time she talked back this vicious was when she was thirteen. Back then, her body went on such a full swing of changes that it made her miserable. So much, that when a boy made snide comments about her chest, she went up to him and said the most cruelest thing she could possibly think of in her brain. After that, he went so mad that he punched her teeth, and before she could recover, kicked her hard in the stomach, and walked away. The pain was so bad that she cried for her parents to help her.

Now she wondered if worse was going to happen.

She looked at Goswin who looked calm under fire. His cheeks were burning bright red from embarrassment. She suddenly let her temper quiet. She knew that look. She wore it every first day of fall, when kids going to school would come across her working whether in her mother’s shop or in the fields, and make fun of her without leave.

Hey, look! they would shout and point at Swan. There’s the Dumb Girl! She’s not going to school!

One year, on the fields, she was holding a scythe, and was thinking how lovely it would be to attack them with the sharp blade of the scythe. But, with the King’s Men watching, they would be more likely to be on the side of the children who bullied her, than a random, uneducated farm girl.

Then, from the left, which is more forest, the sounds of racing horses and shouting men came to their ears, and immediately they looked at each other, sharing a thought.

It’s the HEKN!! We gotta hide!!

Swan looked around if there was any hiding place anywhere. But Rafael beat her to finding it, for he looked up and asked,” Climb a tree?”

A few minutes later, they were all safely high on the top of a tree, with Swan sitting on a branch, holding on to Goswin-who was squatting the base of the top of the tree for if she didn’t, she might fall for her death from the height she is from the ground. Rafael was on the other branch on the opposite side of Swan.

All were tensed up, ready to see the fear-causing well-known HEKN. Goswin’s face looked strained and depressed, like he was on his way to see a funeral and wishes to be somewhere else. Swan knew she was thinking about that commander, from that wintry woods. But it’s not like he was there. If anything, he was many, many miles away.

The owners of the sounds arrived, but much to their relief, they weren’t the HEKN.

Instead, they were a couple of men in hunting clothes riding their horses and laughing raucously at some sly jokes that Swan could never understand. By the sounds of their voices and how strange their voices were, they must have gotten some ale in them. Something she knew, growing up with the men and boys in her neighborhood getting drunk from too much ale in any celebration in the year. Luckily, her family made sure there was next to no ale for the celebrations-just for the sake of younger children.

“Ha, ha, ha, man. This has been great day.” said one of the hunters. A little stout with dark hair covered in a hunting cap with a red feather peeking out. Wearing a worn yellow shirt with a regular leather jerkin and brown worn breeches” Believe me, my wife would faint to such an amount of rabbits I got. She’s been starving for some.”

” Of course she would,” said the other hunter. Pale, with red hair jolting down from his cap, but with a raven black feather.” Especially since the forest is more watched than it was before. You know, with the HEKN searching for those crawling bastard criminals.”

Swan’s blood ran cold, and the trio gave each other a worried look. Does this hunter know they’re here? She tightened her grip, but didn’t make a single sound. She felt good that she was barefoot, for she was prone to dropping her shoes whenever she climbed a tree, which happened every single, damnable time.

But the third hunter seemed more relaxed and easy because he said,” Come on, as long as we’re not breaking the rules, we’re good. Besides, what does the HEKN have to do with us now, eh?”

Although the hunter seemed harmless, Swan leaned a bit to see the third hunter’s face. He looked friendly, with curly blond hair and bright blue eyes. He was younger than the other two, around her age, as far as Swan knew.

The red-haired hunter just sighed and said,” Well, let’s move on then.”

And off they went, riding to wherever. But the three didn’t get down, not until the sound of their voices and their hooves disappeared.

Then, there was silence. Other than the wind blowing on the leaves, there was silence, with the trio frozen in place. Soon, Swan snapped herself awake and broke the silence, saying,” Let’s go.” and let go of Goswin, wanting to get down the tree.

Which was a huge mistake.

The minute she let go, she fell down the tree, screaming. Her mind on one thing: I’m falling!! She closed her eyes immediately, knowing what’s to come, and it wasn’t good, apparently.

Then it stopped, with Swan just a few feet above the ground.

What happened? she thought. How come I haven’t hit the ground yet?

She then heard some loud screaming from a distance. She wondered Who the heck is screaming above there?

At least, that’s what she thinks it’s coming from. She tried to guess who it’s from. Goswin? Nah, the scream doesn’t sound a lot like it would from him. If anything, Goswin seemed brooding and depressed, and sensitive, depending on their last conversation. I mean, she guessed she went on something he didn’t want to talk about. But still…

Even stranger, the air around her grew uncomfortably hot. Swan wondered if her entire body was being burnt right now. It almost seems impossible, but that’s what it feels like.

” Open your eyes!” she heard Goswin tell her. So she obeyed, gasped, and nearly fell.

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Goswin couldn’t believe his eyes, and from what he was hearing, nor could Rafael.

The minute Swan fell, he attempted to catch her, but missed. Then immediately turned into an owl and dove to save her from hitting the ground.

But as he drew near her, a burst of flames rushed to roast him alive, and Goswin raced up to the sky just in time to avoid it.

So, in other words, he left Rafael, who cringes at a single flame, to scream his loudest at what he saw.

Goswin floated down, turned back into his human form sitting on a tree branch, just to see Rafael screaming and crying, and having a death grip on a nearby tree branch.

” Fire! Fire!” he cried, trying to look away,” Oh, please, make it stop! Make it stoh-uh-uh-op!”

When he looked at Swan, to see if she was okay, he gawked, and nearly fell off the tree himself.

Swan was levitating from the ground, encased in a brilliant orb nearly transparent if not for the heat waves that the orb was made out of that protects her from falling, with the occasional spew of flames. Swan’s entire body shook from the effort, and since she was almost in a lying position, Goswin could see that her eyes her shut very tightly.

” Open your eyes!” he yelled to Swan. It was obvious that she wasn’t seeing what she was doing. How can you when you’re falling from a tree in one second, and floating in the next?

Swan did, and she nearly fell in shock of what she was doing, but she recovered herself after dropping a few inches. While nearly falling, the orb collapsed, but then flickered back to light.

Goswin then climbed down the tree.

Chapter 7

Back at the castle, King Norbert was watching from the glow of his blade.

Those two didn’t know it, didn’t even suspect it. How stupid. How they never noticed that they were even watched. That someone will come and kill them in his glory. King Norbert’s glory, only. The HEKN were an unstoppable force, created to defend his crown under his will. They’ll be dead at first sight.

A slow smile crept up his lips, until he shut it down.

Not now. Not when there are potential enemies around.

That was the reason he had made every effort to create a perfect society for these civilians in the vile, crude regions they call countries of Pholuxon and Sowlengard. Soon, when those terrorists the White Flames were fully extinguished, the world will know them to be not only powerful, but the right country to be in. A unified, organized, country.

He could not believe what country the Sowlens allied themselves with. Pholuxon?

More like the Land of Sweat and Drunks. he thought. He had heard from other nations of how gold and fertile land were on every corner. How they made the finest wine and their fruits and vegetables even sounded delicious in the air, and were grown anywhere somebody wishes. How their forests were sacred and how hunters paid proper respects to dead animals before they were taken to their towns. How foolish. What’s the use anyway?

And Sowlengard. What a shame. Their discipline on everything, he admired. But he thought they might be a little too loose. And this ever-living god Sonulus who always takes care of them? What folly. When he took it over, the Sowlens were starving lunatics, their beliefs and efforts spun towards a deity that doesn’t exist. Never existed.

Plus with them turning to owls whenever they feel like it-madness. Do they realize how mad the idea was? Of course not.

He could have left them alone. He was a little nervous of their kind, though he’ll never admit it. They seem like a fine sort to leave alone. But who they side with was disgusting. He needed to teach them a lesson on who they choose as allies.

He watched this scene until it finally faded, and went out to sharpen his sword Silence.

As he did so, scraping his sword with a whetstone, King Norbert saw his reflection.

Clean, smooth dark hair, fell to his chin, parted in the middle. Just how he liked it. The thin nose that shot down his face. The line of a smile that will always be what others, even himself, would consider “sinister”; his eyes, coal black, dark without a single light in his eyes, except the light reflected on them from the outside. And a gleam that enemies sometimes would describe as “mad”.

And now they are gone. he mused. Forever because of my blade.

When he was done, the blade began to hum and almost vibrate. He knew that the spirit hidden in the blade was stirring itself awake. About to tell him, and show him the outside world whenever he wished it. Or when they both feel it’s time. Never has it summoned itself at the wrong time.

Majesty, it whispered, as soft as a silent breeze. The HEKN failed you.

” That’s impossible.” he said. It couldn’t be. Once the 23rd March left to search for these criminals, he finally felt almost…relaxed. Why do the dirty work yourself, when you got the HEKN, the King’s Men, and the support of his people? He liked how people began to follow him. The teachers he had trained and brought to the countries were extraordinary, telling the people the truth about their lives. especially how they view it. He reveled in how confident he felt, how great he felt.

They let them get away. The Highfree boy let the murderer almost crawl into his mind.

Enraged, the King grabbed something hard-some piece of metal-and flung it forward, shattering an ornate mirror in front of him.

Channel your anger, one. the blade hummed at a more aggressive tone, encouraging him to do violence. For the boy must be punished.

” How?” King Norbert asked, shaking. He was frightened. He wanted to do something right, and make this kingdom right. So he listened.

Torment. the blade carefully answered. Pulling the right strings. Show him what happens when he fails to catch what you want.

” So be it.” King Norbert said.

Then, the blade quickly went back to normal, and the door bust open.

Enraged, the king spun to the servant that entered, the blade perfectly aimed for the kill.

” Please, your Majesty!” the servant begged, on knees, and terrified. ” I have news. Commander Highfree is here. At the throne room.”

Brooding, and sheltering his anger, he sheathed his sword, walking out the door.

” Good,” he says as he saunters dangerously through the halls. ” There is some talking that needs to be done.”

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” HOW AM I DOING THIS?!!” Swan screamed, wondering if anyone could hear her.

She opened her eyes, alright, but found herself in some magic object that got her floating above ground. Frightened, Swan wanted to get down, or stay up. Oh, that doesn’t matter. she thought. How am I doing this? And, how do I know this is me alone doing this?

But she does know. Her entire body felt stretched and strained from the effort of doing this, like her body knew what to do, while she didn’t.

This is crazy. she thought. But it seemed that way, which frightened her. Is she in control? After all this, now she loses control of herself?

” Hey!” yelled a voice, coming from the left.

Swan didn’t know if she can turn or even move in this orb-not that it was tight around her-but she did and saw a rider upon a horse, squinting at her, more as if he was doubting his eyes, rather than trying to make the picture clearer. Then, realizing it is, he laughed, got off his horse and neared towards her.

The rider was a middle-aged guy with short curly black hair, and dressed in full knight’s armor.

At first, Swan was terrified. He looked like one of the King’s Men. But he’s not.

For one, he has no helmet on, which is strange, and second, on his breastplate, a white waterfall was featured there, not a sword, like the King’s Men’s breastplate would show.

And third, she recognized him. A family member she hadn’t seen in a while.

Her uncle. Her jolly, lively, uncle Thomas, from River’s Way.

Immediately, she fell, the orb suddenly vanishing, and before she could scream, she felt a pair of arms catch her, and turned to see Goswin carrying her, shocking the both of them. Then, Goswin kindly set her down on the ground, and Swan saw her uncle Thomas laughing at the scene.

” Goswin!” his uncle shouted through his laughter.” Long time, no see! Especially with ya catching maidens when they fall. Especially, with my niece Swan.”

“Uncle Thomas!” she called, as she ran to greet him as she always had, and her uncle gave her the best hug he can give her, though it was a bit hard with the armor in the way.

” What was that?” he asked, as he put her down, and Swan knew he was talking about the orb. ” How did you do that?”

” I don’t know.” Swan said, still confused it happened. “It just happened when I fell off that tree.” She knew then how foolhardy that sounded. but what else can she do? Lie? Feh.

” The craziest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s either we’re all crazy, or…somethin’ else. And I don’t want to think about that one.” her uncle said. ” Anyway, I’ve seen a lot-Swan, what happened to your leg?!!! It’s bleeding!”

Nothing made Swan pale more than to remember her wound. The bandages were still red, but the bleeding has stopped. But, the problem wasn’t admitting that she got shot. It was saying of how. How will her Uncle react if he found out? That Swan had magically went to a snowy wood, met these two Sowlens, and got shot because of     

Thankfully, Goswin-and Swan could almost kiss him for doing so-stepped up and said,” She just got into the middle of a hunting spree, and I rescued her before things got worse.”

This was a lie, but her uncle accepted, and that was that.

After recovering his wits, he then said to her, ” Anyway, a friend of mine, who’s way behind me-” he jerked his head towards the end of the path he arrived on,” were sent to here to pick up three kids to High Ebony. A Sowlen bird came by, I heard, so I know it wasn’t you. Though I could be at the wrong place.” He squinted at Goswin.” Am I? And where’s Rafael? Quivering at a tree branch cause he saw his shadow?”

” I’m here!” his voice rang out, and Swan found Rafael standing uneasily next to the trunk of the tree, like he downed a few cups of ale. His head kept tilting back, his eyes lolling back, his knees weakening.

Goswin, Swan, and her uncle ran to him, to see if he’s alright, Goswin the fastest.

Holding on to his friend, he tried to reassure Rafael, trying to help him stay conscious.        ” It’s fine,” he said. ” The fire’s gone, no one’s…” his voice disappeared when he looked at Rafael’s hand.

It was burnt from Swan’s orb. Swollen lightly and spotted with blisters.

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” Stop doing this. It hurts!!!!”

A few minutes passed and Goswin is busy pouring water on Rafael. He promises it won’t hurt (Goswin, not Rafael), but the complaints did nothing but beg to differ.

Meanwhile, Swan and her uncle Thomas are looking for hazel, to make the medicine to help heal his burn. They only have a few minutes, he told them. But Swan assured him that they can do it, and asked how hard it was to find hazel.

She found out that, yes, it’s that hard to identify hazel. Even Uncle Thomas, who knows all about trees, found himself winded and confused.

Irritated, she thought about punching a nearby tree, and before she could deliver a punch, with her arm drawn back, her uncle grabbed hold of her elbow, and told her gently,” If you break your knuckles right now, it won’t do any help to anyone. Especially Goswin.”

She calmed down, bringing her arm down, but only for a moment.

Rafael’s cries still echo the air, which made Swan even more irritated, to the point she kind of imagined getting a nearby weapon just to hear a different sound, if not to shut him up. But images of the shooting, how the blood just poured out of her skin, how terrified…

Before she knew it, she was at her knees, making weird noises that come out of her sobbing, which she did a lot since the fire.

No, not the- 

Too late. The flames, her parents being left to die burned vividly to her brain. Swan could almost feel the heat of the flames and the hysteria inside of her, as if the two-three days of running-had shrunken to just a few hours ago.

Swan barely felt the grass pricking at her dress. She must have collapsed, but her mind was trapped in the images of the gunshot and the fire, merging in together to one destructive scene, consuming her, either through the frost and loss in the shooting, or the chasing fury and the fires from her home.

She felt herself get grabbed by someone, and she thought it was one of the King’s Men. She screamed for help, and struggled to get out from his hold, but his grip was strong, his voice terrifying.

” Stop it! Stop fighting! Look at me!” he shouted. ” LOOK AT ME!!!”

When Swan’s crying face finally met his eyes, she realized that it was only her Uncle Robert, and that the images were only…a nightmare? This sky is around noon. She wasn’t falling asleep.

The images faded, and she was still in the forest, with Rafael’s complaints still ringing, but they barely stung now. Not when her uncle was shaking her, scolding her.

” What happened to you! Huh?! I’ve never seen you like this! Have you gone mad?!!! What happened?!! WHAT HAPPENED?!!!”

They died. was the thought that was in her head. The words stuck in the lump that stuck to her throat. She wanted to tell the truth, but how? He’ll probably think it was all her fault. Or mad.

But, when she looked at her uncle shouting at her, his eyes angrier than she had ever seen him, the wall of fear came down, and she ended up saying it, but somehow, her words were garbled, made no sense. Talking about things here and there. Like as if her mind forgotten how to make the letters right in her brain. She tried to talk about the fire, her crimes, her running away, everything. But in the end, she stomped her foot in frustration, and regretted as pain lashed back, with having Swan realize that it was the leg she was shot at.

Her uncle Robert, who looked confused when she first talked, then looked shocked, as if he understood. Swan waited for him to be angry, to hurt her. It was all her fault anyway.

She was only partially right.

Uncle Robert, swelling with rage, looked up at the sky, crying out,” IS THIS WHAT YOU WANT, NORBERT?!!!!” the last word loaded with mock and hate. ” YOU TOOK AWAY MY BROTHER! MY SISTER-IN-LAW! I WILL KILL FOR THIS, YOUR MAJESTY!!! I SWEAR IT, I WILL!”

Swan was shaking in terror, not because of how loud he shouted, or how he sounded like he really wanted to kill King Norbert. It was because her uncle decided to blame the king.

Not her. The king. And only fools or the very, very drunk would be insane enough to utter such language to the king. Even if some agree he served badly as king.

Did you do well, hypocrite? a withering voice asked in her head.

Just then, Goswin came running to them and demanded,” What’s going on?” He looked irritated and anxious, asking What the hell is wrong with you two people? 

Swan wanted to say, Nothing. Nothing at all. But, what would cover up all the screaming she had done at the wood?

” I saw a spider. I have a huge fear of them.” she said. It was not a complete lie. Swan would climb up the stairs, crying and wailing, whenever she saw a spider. That was when she was still a little girl. As the years went on, she learned to just kill it, or just swipe it away, before any real anxiety dropped by. Still, feelings of nausea and the feeling of being threatened has never truly left her. Until she was twelve, she often went to sleep with a glowing candle next to her.

Uncle Robert, usually obsessed with her telling the truth, strangely said nothing. But he gave a look of disappointment to her. He led the two to where they were, and called out to his Sowlen friend, screaming, “That’s the longest you’ve spent shitting near that tree! Come over here!”

Goswin, who could read lies like reading a children’s book, also decided not to push her. Besides, he just remembered that he had packed some aloe leaf that was smuggled from a store who had them sent from Alisoendar-a region of the south eastern country Sayabbuin Araetun-a culture of exotic spices and other things that were beyond the imaginations of many Sowlens used to snow, winter, and other harsh northern aspects. By cutting away the spikes and opening a fresh leaf he found, the insides came out, which he was able to apply on his companion’s hand. Just a few more times a day before the pain is gone.

Another Sowlen-easily told with his pale skin, and midnight black hair-came out to greet them, his face tense. He was bringing two horses with him, reins in each hand. But, by the way he held them, he might as well be bringing something dangerous enough to attack her uncle with. This, despite the fact that the horses look pretty docile, and calm.

” I was keeping guard, not…whatever you said.” he retorted as he let go of the reins, and got up on one of them-a white stallion.

Uncle Robert snorted at the Sowlen’s response,” You Sowlens, always avoiding vulgarity as if you didn’t know they could use it. Damn you, it’s not like your god will strike you dead or something.”

Goswin, while getting on a coal-black mare gave him a warning look, and the rude conversation was over.

Chapter 8

They arrived at a tavern.

The group had to, for the stench of the nearest city was practically overwhelming, even by Swan’s standards.

They knew a city was nearby, due to the smell of waste and garbage wafting from the city gates to a nearby hill. Swan and Uncle Robert tolerated it-the faintest yet before they went inside-and so did the Sowlens. But, Swan couldn’t help but notice how Rafael and the other Sowlen, Vince Grey, looked ready to puke up his meals-helping no one, and Goswin’s face tinting a little green in his cheeks.

As they rode down the hill, Uncle Robert grunted gruffly,” Better hold your nose when you get in,” he looked specifically at Rafael and Vince. ” Or best, not go inside at all.”

” We can handle it.” Goswin replied, though his features didn’t seem quite sure.

At the city gates, two guards stood at the entrance, letting everyone know, that they don’t send everyone in.

Normally, Swan wouldn’t be so afraid of guards, but now worries crept up to her mind as they rode closer and closer. What if they recognize me? she thought. Will they ask for my name? How can I hide? Will I have to change it? Will the guards see my terror and think I’m lying? If I said I was innocent?

Swan wanted her uncle to turn back, and find another way, but the horses have already reached the gates.

Too late to turn back now.

All of them got off their rides, and went towards the door, until one of them-a middle-aged man with mean, green eyes, said,” You’re not comin’ in.”

“Bloody hell?” her uncle cussed in front of the man.

“Why?” Goswin asked. “Is there some kind of mishap going on?”

The guard sneered at him, saying,” Nothing you ought to know, Sowlen.” The man said Sowlen, like it was something insulting. Vulgar, maybe.” I heard your cities muck faster than my ass can shit. And that could be a long time, you puffed-up white crow. Now get outta my sight before I have to run ya through.”

Goswin looked ready to punch him, and Vince Grey shot him a fierce look.

The second guard, about the same age range as the first, told gently, his blue eyes kind,” You better listen to what he says, sir. The city’s packed to the borders. Any more, and the city’s citizens will riot. Already, we have to deal with…accidents from wagons and people not looking the right way.”

” Doesn’t matter.” Vince said sharply, “There is no other way to a certain fort we are heading to.”

“High Ebony?” The mean guard suggested. He grumbled under his breath, saying a bunch of inappropriate things that would leave most Sowlens halfway towards shock and horror. Finally, the guard grudgingly says, “Alright, you can come through.”

The gates opened with a stream of villagers coming out, the stench growing stronger.

“Cause trouble,” the first guard warned. “I’m gonna really run some people through.” His hand rested on his gun, making Swan extra nervous.

They got in, after a few people were at the gates, and Rafael threw up. He ran to a corner, and heaved whatever breakfast he had, which caused some loud complaints from the nearby villagers. One woman shouted,” Disgusting little rat!” as she walked by him. Goswin and Vince ran to help him. Uncle Robert told them to hurry, and went to a nearby market.

Swan could only look. She wasn’t really focused on Rafael; she was looking at every face in the city, wondering which one knew her, which one would say something, which one would rat her out the fastest.

When Rafael recovered, her uncle came back with a couple of lamb legs-To eat? Swan thought- and the group continued their trip through the city. Goswin reassured everyone that Rafael was fine now. It wasn’t very long, before a conversation between Goswin and Uncle Robert.

It went first with Goswin: “This is a village?”

Uncle Robert:” Don’t get too discouraged, Sowlen. You’ll get back those towns you like so much.”

Goswin:” I doubt it.”

Uncle Robert:” I know, but it wasn’t your fault.”

Swan looked at Goswin, again reminded of his crime, and he looked away, but not quick enough for Swan to miss his expression. He looked upset, his eyes blinking back tears. Swan wanted to reach out to him, feeling pity.

Vince, in Swan’s opinion, is way too quiet. He seemed quite talkative in the woods-a bit-but in this village…he might as well not have a lot to say.

Soon, they came up to a stage, where a play was going on.

Actors dressed in costumes shouted and flailed in their dance, telling everyone how stupid the lives of Pholuxonians and the Sowlens were, compared to their new lives under Norbert’s rule. It was put in a comedic way, and the crowd laughed ridiculously hard at the right parts.

It first showed the Pholuxonians, in their colorful costumes with their wide sleeves, and revealing skirts for girls, and shaggy pants on men. The setting was in a village as dirty as this very one they were in. The actors displayed them as lazy, drunk, and stupid, making ridiculous mistakes that made people wonder who was running the old country, Pholuxon. For example, a woman in a scarlet dress attempted to flirt with a drunken man right next to her, only to get smacked, and told to ” be damned and get him more wine”. The guy at the corner said raucous things that made the woman blush. Swan turned away before she could see what happened next.

Before long, the Sowlens were portrayed to the audience. They were dressed in stitched furs in their snowy mountains, and they weren’t much better. In fact, they were seen as savage tribe groups that didn’t have much between their ears. They chanted for ice demons and some god named Sonalus, and grunted a lot, digging the butt of their spears to the ground.

This left people laughing so hard, that someone loudly reported that they couldn’t breathe from all that stupidity, and that he “should leave before their shit got worse.” which resulted in even more laughter. Even the actors joined in, hugging their stomachs and pointing at the out-spoken villager.

The only ones not even close to even chuckling were the group. The Sowlens looked gloomy, and the girl and her uncle stoic. They didn’t believe half the things that were said, and a few minutes later, they were riding away on their horses from the insulting play, Rafael raving about how untrue it was.

“…None of these people has ever seen even one bit of Sowlengard.” He said, not even checking if he’s out of earshot yet.” Otherwise, they would have never said such insults out loud in public view. Those actors are liars, all of them, and know nothing of the truth.”

Uncle Robert was staring at a little child in the audience, laughing with everyone else at what they saw, taking in all of it without suspicion. ” Yeah,” he murmured.” They know ’bout nothing at all.”

At the tavern mentioned in the beginning, the horse were put in the stables where they will be well taken care of. The group walk in to find bunches of people at tables, some drinking, others deep in a conversation. The noises were so loud, that if somebody even said,” Fire!” in the place, no one would hear it.

The barkeeper at the stand in the other end of the place, was wiping a beer mug, when they came by. He greeted them with a smile, saying.” How can I help you? Some beer to relieve your thirst? Some rooms you need to stay in?” He was staring at Swan when he asked the second question. Swan glared at him, hoping he wasn’t going to get ideas.

Uncle Robert stamped a coin down on the table, and said,” We’ll need something more, Thomasson.” He leaned in and his voice softened, ” The falls are running out.”

Thomasson nodded, and said,” Right away, sir.” Then he led them down the hallway to the right. Deep in the left side, a brown door was there, with the sign, “FERTILIZERS” on it. Swan nearly gagged, knowing exactly what they were. Goswin looked aghast. Rafael shouted,” You are throwing us in a room full of-” and said stuff that a Sowlen would not be caught saying.

Thomasson, in response, said,” This is the last place where the HEKN will ever find you.” He opened the door, looked inside, and added,” Trust me, they will rather do far worse than go inside.”

The group cautiously went in. And, it was barely what they expected.

Windows shone bright, but were covered in sheets. The room was empty, instead of a table, and four chairs waiting for them. On the left-side wall, a tapestry of a procession entering some castle was hung over there, but the bottom was charred. Burnt. This did not sit well with Swan, but she was able to look away quick enough so her memories didn’t resurface to haunt her.

Thomasson left, saying that he will bring water and bread for them to have while they “relieve” themselves and ” Will the falls spring forth another day.”

Swan asked her uncle about the strange line, and he replied,” That’s the words of the White Flames. It means good luck. Which I believe, is one of the things we do need.”

Goswin and Rafael took their seats. Vince went outside to stand guard. The sound of the door knob clicking into place, started the conversation.

Goswin began, asking,” When are we going to High Ebony? I thought we were to be there.”

Swan looked at him admiringly. After everything that happened, she had completely forgotten the reason why they were in a city in the first place.

Uncle Robert answered,” We are gonna get there soon. But first, I want you to know some things. The things Swan’s parents never told her, and whatever you weren’t told in Sowlengard.”

Goswin, Rafael, and Swan leaned in, like Robert did with Thomasson. This was going to be long.

” The White Flames,” her uncle began,” used to be supporters for King Norbert taking over. They had a huge hand in helping his armies win. However, they realized that King Norbert wasn’t there to spread ideas of freedom and empowerment, they actually tried  to stop him. But, by then, it was far too late. The countries, exhausted from the fight, surrendered, the royal families and friends all slaughtered in their castles, which became his castles.

” For weeks on end, they blamed each other constantly, all falling apart from within. They didn’t have much of a purpose anymore. Not until they found out that the children of the monarchs missing. That changed everything.”

“Why?” Goswin asked. ” What do they have to with their cause?”

” They are a symbol of hope. That King Norbert’s rule over them would be nothing but a bad day.”

A long, tragic, bad day. Swan thought.

” The White Flames,” Uncle Robert continued,” decided to use that, but not before almost being run to the ground when they got a huge defeat to King Norbert’s forces. They didn’t think, earlier, that those children will support their ideas of democracy anymore than King Norbert would. But afterward, they saw how they can do something about it.

” They believed that when the time is right, like when they are sixteen or something, they will be eligible for their birthrights. And that is true. So, they are training their agents to find them and train them to be better rulers than King Norbert-obviously-and better than their deceased parents. Maybe to establish a wing of government where the people can have a say in stuff as well. So, the lost Prince of Sowlengard and Princess of Pholuxon became their hope as well. The hope to end King Norbert’s reign of terror and put liberty in the lands, greater than before.”

Swan listened to everything. But she concentrated around those words. The Lost Prince of Sowlengard and Princess of Pholuxon…she thought. Not that she never heard of them before. One of the tales her neighbors would say, was about the lost prince and the lost princess who practically vanished off the face of the earth when they were a year old. A year old and a day. I remember. Old Nelly Sweeps insisted every time they talked about them. But that was strange, since her mind was so sans that she couldn’t even remember where she put her old broom a few seconds earlier.Up until she was thirteen, she used to think they must be special or something, since the very mention of their names brings up either pity, sadness, blissful hope, lightness, or annoyance and disgust after so many times. People would be a bit sad about it, saying things like,” Oh, the poor things, I wonder where they are right now…”, ” What an awful thing to go through, to lose your children…”, or the most popular, “One day, the rulers say, they will come back, and the two nations will be redeemed.”

These things were said in private of course. No one wanted to be caught speaking freely of the Old Kingdoms. The punishment, she knew was harsh and cruel. But as she grew older, she grew tired of hearing of them. Who cares about a bunch of missing royal children that disappeared a long time ago? She once asked her mother that question, and her mother replied,” Those who still have hope that things could change, Swan. These children may or may not be alive, but it’s good to hope for change.”

The reason she concentrated on these words, was partly because she was reminded of the story that kept going on all her life. Another reason was because she was curious about them. Are they here?

She stared at Goswin and Rafael, and they seemed to think so, too. In fact, this seemed like the first time they were told this story. How come?

The four were silent for a time. Finally, Rafael snorted and murmured,” This is complete madness.”

Swan asked,” The lost prince and princess…they are still alive?”

” You tell me,” said her Uncle Robert. ” To this day, White Flames hasn’t found them. Yet.”

Goswin asked,” So, the White Flames are putting their entire operation on finding lost royal children, just so they can be used to spread their ideals?”

Uncle Robert frowned, like he never thought about it that way.

Just then, Thomasson entered the room, answering,” The royal children of kings and queens have always been manipulated. Raised to follow their ancestor’s ideals. Perhaps could change them, if it fits their rule of law. This, is almost no different. Just with more honesty, and less coaxing. With this, you are free to think about anything, maybe even to change the world entirely.”

” How do you know this?” Rafael demanded, standing up so sudden that his chair fell. ” Holy Sonalus, this is an outrage!”

A smirk appeared at the right of Thomasson’s mouth. ” I used to work in the Pholuxonian castle while the royal family ruled. I know what went in those halls before King Norbert took over. Which is why I will help you guys further.”

“The bloody hell are you talking about, castle worker?” Uncle Robert asked.

Thomasson looked behind, like checking if there is anyone to listen to what he had to say next. Then, he looked back at the group and stated, ” I will take you to High Ebony. King Norbert knows you are here, and if you all do not escape, we’re all going to be killed.”

_________________________________________________________________

” We’ll need to keep a closer eye on the doctor’s son.”

Anais Ramson, listening to her friend say this out loud is nothing but baffled. She knew this day would come. The doctor’s son was excellent, but…

” He has only been part of us for two years!” she protested. ” We promised to wait five years and see if he is eligible enough to be an agent of our group.”

Alex Leorent, a Pholuxonian noble who ruled the land that contained Heather’s Fields and River’s Way, stared out the window, at the dense forests beyond. His grey eyes below his light-blond hair saw everything sharply. He returned to his seat across from her, resting his crossed hands on an elegant table made from mahogany.

” We have made that promise,” he replied, ” but these times are changing. King Norbert is getting reckless. he has spotted him and your Swan at the village of Annuwdey. If that tavern worker doesn’t get them here quick enough, our chances of continuing our rebellion would vanish into thin air.”

Anais felt as if she found herself at the edge of a sword blade. And she could have. This man isn’t going to waste time arguing. He will say what he will do, and expect everyone to agree. If anything, he could rule Pholuxon and Sowlengard without so much as raising his temper. One would have to get a second-or third, fourth, fifth-liver to be able to stand up to him without a hint of fear in them at all.

She decided to face him, with her internal self quivering in terror, but her features not showing even a batting eye. She was not only concerned about the doctor’s son getting an early rise in ranks; she was terrified about Swan. Oh Swan, how did she get to meet the doctor’s son? And the fool…did her uncle get to see her? Was she alright? Did the HEKN…

” Well?” Alex asked. Anais knew that he was expecting her to ask. While most would wet themselves at the thought of questioning their rebel leader, Anais just gathered all her courage and dignity to do so. There are far more frightening things to see than humiliation from the leader.

Anais stated,” When they get here,” she was not ever going to use the word “if” at this time and circumstance. Not ever. ” I can tell you are going to tell Goswin about his improvement from a mere volunteer to an agent, and…what? Why now are you so in a rush to get him in a higher position?”

” Because he displayed valuable skills enough to be an agent.” Alex said.

She scoffed. That sounded so pathetic, she didn’t know if she was going to laugh or fling herself out the window. No, the latter sounded far too dramatic. Better stick with laughing. She then reminded him,” All of the volunteers show valuable skills. That’s why we still have 25 of them in total for goodness’s sake.”

” Are you stating that the fool also is showing valuable skills?” Alex inquired, his eyes piercing her. It was all Anais could do to refrain herself from even touching him. This man knew well on how to put her in her place. Please, she was a member of the Pholuxonian court. His family used to be a rich family working for a larger noble. For all she knew, his pride could throw itself out the window.

” What is so immensely important about now, that we should let the doctor’s son become an agent?”

” He is the key to finding the lost children. Have you looked at his progress so far?”

Anais could swear that her face must be beet red from all the frustration of being humiliated by him. Forget those more frightening things out there. Alex has a knack for making even the best fell demoted. Demoted as a servant in the king’s hall. It is sickening.

Alex dismissed her, and Anais felt more than happy to leave. If she stayed longer, she would assassinate him with the hidden serrated knife within the folds of her damask gown.

There is a lot swimming in her mind as she walked down the hallway, to her apartments at High Ebony. A lot from the meeting.

There is something that Alex wasn’t telling her, or anyone. There was a deeper reason that the doctor’s son is being sent to a higher position at this time. Something about this boy must have made Alex choose him out of all people to get this position.

And if that was going on, then there is a new plan in progress. Must be something that had been going on that she hadn’t been aware of. Suddenly, the accusation of Swan’s parents, Swan meeting Goswin and Rafael at who-knew-where, her uncle picking her up, King Norbert finding them at Annuwdey…what if all of this was planned? Orchestrated?

She could almost keel over with that absolutely insane thought in her mind. That has to be false. There was no way that could’ve happened. If so, then the Alex she had grown used to was only a sliver of his greatness. If he did this…it was almost too much for Anais to put in clearly. it was so fanatically crazy that it had to be false. A mere delusion after the frustration at that meeting.

But, unfortunately, there was one thing she had learned in her long years of her life. A lesson that keeps on showing it’s colors constantly in it’s own surprising, twisted way.

It was, that anything is possible. Anything can happen.

There is no such thing, as most likely, or least likely. The least have the same amount of probability of occurring, as the most.

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